My quads are almost back to 100%, still a little stiff going down stairs.
So why is it when newbies run without shoes at first, their calves are so sore? The assumed answer is that the barefoot form requires a lot of calf strength. If that’s the case, shouldn’t my calves be screaming after my first barefoot marathon? Instead, at no point prior to, during, or after the race have my calves felt even the slightest tension. This means one of two things: either my calves are wicked strong, at least compared to my quads, or beginners are sore because they’re doing it wrong (because they’re beginners). An application of Occam’s razor principal suggests the winning answer is numero dos.
I think what beginners are doing “wrong” stems in part from a misunderstanding of what the foot is supposed to do. They think the foot needs to be strong, that the landing is made smooth by using muscles instead of relaxing them. There’s also the fear of letting the heel land, and just fear in general causes tension.
“Hey SUCKcliffe,” says Jake, that jerk from the 5th grade who would always slap me upside the head as he passed my desk to sharpen a pencil for the umteenth time that day, “I got something for ya.” I know it’s coming, yet turn around anyway. I see his evil grin and wait for the inevitable – he fake-punches me, fist stopping inches from my nose. I flinch, every muscle in my body tightening up. “HA HA HA HA,” says Jake. Hate that guy.
That’s what we do when we’re expecting an incoming blow. That’s what we do when we (re)learn to run barefoot. We expect the ground to hurt, and tense up for the impact. Just as with a punch, we have the ability to overcome our instincts and relax, stay calm, and roll with it.
So what does this have to do with calves? Simple. If your calves hurt, you’re doing something wrong. It’s not part of a physical conditioning process. It’s one of your first lessons: learn how to run so your calves don’t hurt. Don’t try to make your calves stronger; all that will do is move the pain to somewhere else. Strong calves won’t improve your form; instead, they can hide the effects of bad form. Just like tough feet. It’s going down the coal mine without the canary.
All that said, sore calves might be inevitable for beginners. That tension from fear is a natural instinct that takes practice to control. But if you want to run barefoot, or at least have a better understanding of what running barefoot is about, you have to change the way you think about pain. Don’t embrace pain as a means of becoming tougher. Avoid pain as a means of becoming smoother. Being smoooooooth is what it’s all about.